Monday, March 23, 2009

Scourge of the Scuppies

While greedy corporate executives are hogging the limelight, we're witnessing another cultural scourge: Scuppies.

You may know them by another name, but these neopuritans are revolutionizing public life as we know it. Whether it's the jihad against bottled water or disposable diapers, scuppies are there, telling you what to do and yelling at you when you don't do it.

If you're not sure when you're in the presence of an actual scuppie, you should refer to the check-list: they are always ultra-thin, smug, and patronizing; they wear expensive clothes that are made to look inexpensive; and they love to talk about their exotic travels and extreme vacations to authentic places, where they exercise compulsively and eat obsessively. Here's a link to a handbook:

The inconvenient truth that we're witnessing is nothing less than a transformation in public morality. It used to be that people were judged by how they treated others. Now people are judged by what they consume. Public morality has become collapsed into consumerism: you are what you buy. Buy the wrong stuff, drive the wrong car (soon it will be any car), and you're going straight to cultural hades.

Over the past generation, it has become increasingly unacceptable to make public judgements about someone's personal morality. We are supposedly living through a great age of cultural permissiveness and tolerance. But that's not entirely true.

While vast areas of private conduct have indeed become off-limits for public shaming, environmentalism has become a new, officially-sanctioned secular religion. You may be a complete jerk who treats his family like garbage -- you may be a habitual liar or just mean to others -- but if you score high marks on the environmental litmus-test, you're okay. Going green (and being thin, of course) is your get out of jail card in the new game of cultural monopoly.

But like all secular religions, scuppieism has a moral blindspot. In the case of scuppies, it's travel. While the high priests of environmentalism shriek at the sound of a water bottle being opened, they're deaf to the noise of a jet airplane. While they condemn the masses for shopping for deals at Walmart, they jet-set across the globe, looking for that perfect $20,000 authentic experience. While they judge you for drinking Tim's, it's fine for them to travel to Jamaica for the world's perfect coffee beans. It's not the amount money you spend but rather how you spend it that counts. Consume tacky stuff and you can kiss your social capital goodbye. Consume exotic travel (leave your carbon footprint 30,000 feet in the air, over the Pacific Ocean, rather than on a freeway) and you're judged superior for having improved yourself. Thus while one section of the Globe and Mail yells at you to stop driving your car, another section urges you to fly to unspoilt Mongolia, where the world-weary traveller can savour the best yak milk in the world.

Make no mistake: their politics are deeply personal and they're playing for keeps. Last fall, when the local NDP candidate came to my door, she nearly slapped me when I told her I was voting for another party. She was positively enraged: the NDP was not just the best choice; it was the moral choice. I made two mistakes. I told her that Jack Layton really bugs me (he still does). And in my driveway was parked a Chevy (it's still there).

P.S. In response to one scuppie who emailed me: in terms of the actual environment (as opposed to the dogma of "sustainability," which is an extremely slippery concept) the selective acseticism of the scuppie ethos does little to help the cause. By focusing too much on individual consumer behaviour (micro-economics) rather than government policies (macro-economics), they often fail to build the type of larger political coalition that's necessary for real progress. The mantra "think globally, act locally" has it backwards: it should be think locally and act globally. Feel-good consumerist policies such as the "one-ton challenge" make good PR, and national states like them because it's a cheap way for them to deal with difficult problems. Environmental issues should be treated like other public safety issues, rather than an existential contest to see who can be the thinnest pocket-mulcher. Incremental steps, such as increasing mandatory fuel efficiency for cars (which would have significant popular support), have a more direct and immediate impact than fantasies about abolishing the internal combustion engine.

And finally, as for the issue of personal asceticism, which is at the heart of the scuppie creed: fat people don't live nearly as long as skinny people, so they don't cost the public as much, nor do they consume as many natural resources over their lifetime as thin people who live far longer. And if you think rabid environmentalism stops there, think again:
If people should stop having babies to save the environment, then why stop there? Why not mass euthanasia?

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